Founding Feathers

This article was first published in Broad Magazine (Summer issue, 2018). Featured image in Broad by Kellie Mastwijk.

In the often fickle world of fashion, Margaret Porritt is somewhat of an anomaly. As the founder of iconic fashion brand, Feathers, she has been dressing Australian women in her sophisticated designs for decades and has tenaciously steered the company through turbulent times. This year, Feathers celebrated its 45th anniversary.

‘I was always surrounded by fashion, always,’ says Melbourne-based Margaret of her early introduction to fashion. She describes a childhood spent watching her milliner mother at work during the glamorous 1940s and ‘50s, an era, it seemed ‘where everybody wore a hat’.

Margaret grew up to undertake a millinery apprenticeship under the guidance of her mother and then worked for a time in the UK for Sir Norman Hartnell, a reputed British fashion designer who made the Queen’s coronation and wedding gowns. She muses, ‘He taught me about quality and design – about understanding and caring for your customers.’

In 1972 at the age of 32, she started her own fashion retail business – Feathers. ‘I had been working in a little dress shop in the West End of Melbourne. I worked there for a year or two, then I ended up buying the shop. Within a few months, I had opened a second store.’

Margaret’s foray into retail was a decision fuelled by her need to provide, as a single mother, for her three sons, then-aged four, five, and nine. ‘I had to raise three boys on my own and go through a divorce. In the ’70s, that wasn’t like it is today. Families were not broken like they are today. You had to be strong.’ She says, ‘Somebody had to bring in the bacon and that was me.’

An innate ability to adapt and evolve.

With a keen eye for new design talent and a strong understanding of what customers wanted, Margaret sourced Australian fashion labels that fit the Feathers aesthetic of well-designed, high-quality staples. In the early days of the business – before they opened their own stores – this included brands like Country Road, Carla Zampatti, and Sportscraft.

It was a retail approach that customers responded well to and, as her boys reached their teens, Margaret steadily expanded the number of Feathers stores. Business flourished through the ’70s and ’80s, until – as then Treasurer Paul Keating famously said ‘the recession we had to have’ arrived in the late-80s.

It rocked retail and Feathers was among many Australian businesses forced to close stores and scale down operations. While many other brands folded, Margaret worked hard to ensure that Feathers endured.

‘Basically, the basis of the business is ‘change’. That is the big word. If you don’t develop, improvise and change, you will end up like a whole lot of other manufacturers and retailers that just die. It’s all about adapting and reading the market,’ explains Margaret, displaying how she managed to maintain and grow Feathers, through the toughest of times, including the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8 and, more recently, the wave of international and online retailers now operating within Australia.

Describing today’s consumer as ‘highly educated’, Maaret attributes ‘talking to the customer’ as her inspiration and doing regular shifts on the shop floor over the years to Feathers’ ongoing success. ‘I think one of my keys to survival is the customer is my queen. Whatever she wants – within reason – I give her.’

Style that is timeless.

It was this same self-belief and entrepreneurial spirit that led Margaret in 1995 to create her own range, ‘Feathers by Margaret Porritt’. To help communicate that she was now designing her own collections, Margaret, then aged 55, became the face of the campaign. Billboards featuring a shot of Margaret and the slogan ‘Introducing clothes that work for you… I couldn’t find them, now I design them’ appeared all over Melbourne.

The campaign and the collection were a huge success. ‘It went gangbusters,’ Margaret explains. ‘It just took off because there was a gap in the market.’ Only one year after its launch, Feathers by Margaret Porritt was the only brand stocked in the stores. Humbly, she’s quick to add, ‘But mind you, nothing comes easy.’

While she has always had final say on the designs of every garment, Margaret has returned to the role of Feathers’ creative director, having spent years looking after other aspects of the business. Her style, deemed ‘classic with a twist’,  both casual and sporty, is evident in the brand’s signature of elegant, easy-wearing basics.

Margaret believes timeless designs can be worn by women of every age and shape. ‘It took me a long time to work out that the closest thing to your spirit and soul is clothing. It took me 25 years to work out why I loved serving women and making them feel good about themselves.’

Balance is key.

While she works tremendously hard, Margaret, now 77, ensures she always makes time for herself. ‘I have a beautifully balanced life. Don’t make any mistake. I have two mornings a week where I have an appointment with myself –  Tuesday and Thursday I go boxing. I have a beautiful house down the coast and I usually bail out at around lunchtime on a Friday. I walk for hours, I garden, I go out into the fresh air and, in winter, I love my skiing.’

Family is another key part of Margaret’s life. She regularly spends time with her sons and her grandchildren. All of who often visit her at her holiday home on the coast or ski with her on the weekends in winter. She notes: ‘We’re all going to Japan skiing in January.’

Feathers has been a life’s work for Margaret for 45 years. Her success reflected in accolades she has received – including Telstra’s ‘Business Owner of the Year Award’, Ragtrader’s ‘Retailer of the Year (under 20 stores)’, and ‘Australian Retailers Association of Victoria Award’) – but, more so, the 14 Feathers stores (including five MYER concessions and an online store) and her strong, close-knit team of employees. ‘I have a most wonderful young team working with me that are like sponges. Everything that I do, they want to learn from. We’re not on an ego. We all support each other. It takes a long time to get a team like that.’

It is evident Feathers is a labour of love for Margaret. ‘I’m most looking forward to working for another 20 years,’ she says of her plans for the future. ‘Look, send me to work and I’m happy. I love working with the team I’ve got. I love what I’m doing and the minute I don’t love it anymore is the time I have to give it away. I’m still as passionate as day one.’

Follow Margaret Porritt @foreveryoungbymjp on Instagram.